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Wisconsin created its current civics standards in 2018 informed by Wisconsin’s Guiding Principles for Teaching and Learning. These guiding principles are relevant understandings of the impact of educational practices and attitudes on student learning outcomes. Accompanied by empirical research briefs, the six identified principles focus on a commitment to meaningful learning that is inclusive to all students. For example, the centering of “creativity, awareness, inquiry, and critical thinking” defines the “responsive environment” that Wisconsin identifies as ideal for engaging learners. As these principles are explained to be a formative part of all education standards, Wisconsin seemingly demonstrates an understanding of the importance of participatory and accessible learning. However, without effective guidance for educators, these idealized principles seem to fall short in practice. The learning outcomes for civic education that exist in Wisconsin are labeled as Political Science and subsist of patchy and insubstantial standards for content and guidance throughout the K-12 curriculum. Without details and clarification on educational practices, these standards center a theoretical understanding of government without explicit instruction on how to engage students in active or participatory civic learning.
At the elementary school level, civic engagement is listed as a learning priority under the social studies curriculum, but the extent to which guidance is given in terms of curricula suggests that students should “explore opportunities for civic engagement in their community.” No further elaboration is given in terms of the civic skills and methods of participation that should be taught. The lack of specific and sufficient guidance for instructors detracts from the plausibility that these important learning imperatives for active engagement will actually engage elementary students. The structure of elementary learning standards is similar to other states in that there is a cluster of standards from K-second grade and from third-fifth grade. In the elementary realm of standards, there is focus on hypothetical citizenship with passive imperatives to compare, classify, summarize, or identify as well as attempts to engage students in active citizenship with expectations to develop and express opinions, critique injustice, or investigate ways citizens can influence decision makers. However, these attempts to approach civic education from a pragmatic lens only go so far as the suggested learning outcomes without concrete instruction on ways to proceed with participatory civic learning.
At the middle school level, civic engagement is again listed as a learning priority under the social studies curriculum, yet the same problems exist. The content standards for civic education are clustered for grades 6-8 with no grade breakdown of civic skills given. The middle school standards seem intended to build on the elementary standards, but appear similar in wording and imperative. For example, the content standard from third-fifth grade that asks students to “identify” their role in various levels of government simply progresses to the expectation that students will “explain” their role in various levels of government. This exemplifies the general lack of guidance as to how instructors can increase the complexity of the civic skills learned or build on the previous content standard. In some cases, the learning outcomes progress from comparisons to analyses or from summaries to predictions, but there is no evidence of any tangible participatory imperatives that engage students in their immediate capabilities as young citizens. For example, students are asked to “investigate” the success of advocacy groups mobilizing for justice without any focus on what issues or injustices would call students themselves to advocacy.
At the high school level, Wisconsin requires a specific, integrated civics and government course to graduate, as well as a civics exam. However, with surface-level questions on an exam modeled off of the USCIS citizenship test, it becomes clear that Wisconsin gives more weight to standardization of answers than actual engagement with relevant civic content. The majority of learning outcomes for the high school grade cluster are rooted in analysis and evaluation, with only three standards expecting students to create or demonstrate something. Those imperatives that do call for student-led participation are either bureaucracy-oriented in nature, such as demonstrating participation in the election process or creating solutions to increase voter participation, or wildly vague, as embodied by the standard graduate expectation to “create arguments by researching and interpreting claims and counterclaims.” The few standards that do hint at pragmatism and student initiative are essentially disconnected from the development of ongoing civic engagement with issues that are relevant and meaningful to students themselves.
These vague civic engagement standards are created around the framework of eight standards for citizenship education mandated by state law. These standards focus heavily on an understanding of government without much requisite of practical knowledge regarding the ways in which citizens can participate in civic life outside the conventional political process. Though a learning outcome of the Political Science strand is to have students “employ skills for civic literacy,” there is no evidence of guidance or frameworks for how instructors and students can move towards this goal. Wisconsin’s approach does not unite theory with practice, nor give students the chance to engage in dialogue or civic action that is meaningful to them.